BY ERROL CASTENS
STARKVILLE – Feathered creatures from mockingbird to mallard live in the South, but bird hunting means only one thing – a quest for quail.
Evoking images of tweed jackets and English setters, bird hunting is now largely relegated in the Mid-South to private shooting preserves stocked with pen-raised quail.
A regional partnership headed by Mississippi State University aims to give new life to the old sport by restoring quail populations to levels found before 1980.
“Hunting northern bobwhite in Mississippi and other Southeastern states is both a socially and economically significant sport that is steeped in tradition,” said MSU avian ecologist Wes Burger. “The sport, however, is threatened by declining populations of the game bird.”
Oxford hunter and bird dog breeder Jere Hoar said the species desperately needs help.
“I simply don't know where there are any wild quail,” he said. “I still feed bird dogs and train them to hunt, but it's mostly out of habit and the hope that the bird populations will come back.”
Burger said bobwhite populations in the Southeast have declined at about four percent per year since the early 1970s.
The conservation project builds on a national plan developed by the Southeast Quail Study Group, a cooperative of professionals at universities, nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies. The region under MSU's leadership is one of 22 in the northern bobwhite quail's native range.
Dr. Bruce Leopold, MSU Wildlife and Fisheries department chair, said MSU is a natural choice to head the regional effort.
“Our department has conducted bobwhite quail research for more than 18 years,” he said, “and has achieved a national stature for our expertise.”
The 2002 Farm Bill and state-level initiatives will provide incentive and cost-share payments to help farmers, ranchers and nonindustrial forest landowners to restore habitat.
Hoar said he hopes the restoration is successful, noting the Southern landscape is a different place without the bobwhite.
“The only birds around here that still remember the quail call are mockingbirds,” he said.